Today is Mid-Autumn Festival. It is also the night when the moon is supposed to be most bright and especially full. On this night, ethnic Chinese from all over the world would commemorate the event as “Moon Cake Festival” or more popularly called the “Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节).” In some places, it is also celebrated with lanterns, but purists would insist that the Mid-Autumn Festival is different from the Lantern festival. As many overseas Chinese become exposed to different cultures overseas, it is easy to confuse or to mix up all the various traditions. Nevertheless, when it comes to food, many people would be a lot more forgiving.
A) The Legends
Many legends and their variations surround the celebration of this festival. One of the most famous is the story of a beautiful damsel called “Chang E” who fell in love with an expert archer named “Hou Yi.” The story began with the Jade Emperor in heaven who had ten unruly sons. In their mischief, they transformed themselves into suns, scorched scorched the earth, destroyed the harvest, and made life unbearable for everyone on earth. The Jade Emperor authorized his chief archer, Hou Yi to take care of matters.
Yi descended to earth and shot down nine of the blazing suns with his arrows, leaving behind only one sun to maintain enough light and life for the earth. The Jade Emperor was furious that Hou Yi had taken things into his own hands and killed nine of his children. He banished Hou Yi and his wife Chang E to earth as mortal beings.
Life on earth was miserable for the pair of lovers. They longed for heaven frequently. Hou Yi often wished for him and his wife to be immortals again. Through a series of encounters and good deeds, their wish came true. They received an elixir of life that could give both Chang E and Hou Yi a chance to become immortals again. All it took is to drink half a portion each and they could be on their way to heaven.
One evening, while trying to escape an intruder, Chang E drank the whole elixir and given the potency of the elixir, she rose up to the moon and became immortal. Her husband remained a mortal. The Mid-Autumn is that one day each year that both of them can be reunited. The eating of the moon cake is a way to remember such powerful love between Chang E and Hou Yi. This is one reason why the Mid-Autumn Festival is the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day.
While the legends do sound quite incredible, what is interesting is how Chinese people all over the world are willing to come out in droves to celebrate the occasion by buying seasonal mooncakes and enjoying the moonlight walk with their loved ones. It is also an amazing scientific phenomena that the moon appears brightest and roundest on this very night. Regardless of your levels of belief, one could say that the Mid-Autumn Festival is a really pleasant tradition to cherish. Those not keen on the legends will appreciate the delicious mooncakes and the positive moods surrounding the occasion. I want to deal with one popular question surrounding this festival and the Christian faith.
B) The Question: Should Christians Celebrate?
Can Christians celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival? At the onset, there would be two extremes. The first is the direct NO camp that claims Christians can only worship God. They cannot worship or be seen to worship the moon, Chang E, the romance, or the mooncake! They claim the need to be separate from the things of the world from the things of God. There is a legitimate concern especially when we learn the story of Chang E, and how some people make sacrifices to the moon or the goddess. If that is so, we ought to refrain from any association with the symbols of Mid-Autumn Festival altogether. The second camp is the Absolute-YES camp that swallows everything lock, stock, and barrel. Such people might even question: “What’s wrong with praying to the moon?” Using the realm of ‘possibility,’ they even claim the legitimacy of the legend of ten suns and the existence of an elixir of immortality! Believing that love covers a multitude of life, they elevate the romance of Chang E and Hou Yi to a supernatural level.
C) Some Possible Responses
So should Christians celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival or some other human traditions? Let me offer three thoughts.
First, know the difference between theology and tradition. They do not necessarily contradict each other. This reminds me of “Chinese-Christian / Christian-Chinese” debate (or Christianity and other ethnicity in comparison). Just because we are Christians does not mean we cannot be Chinese. In fact, both are true. The difference is the “entry point” into the conversation. Just because we hold a set of theological convictions does not mean we forget the traditions around us. If being Chinese is part of our identity; being a Christian ties together this identity (with the past) with our destiny (for the future). Theology is about God. Traditions is about the practices and beliefs of human beings on earth. Yale theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan once contrasted tradition as good and traditionalism as bad. He writes:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Have we in our haste to defend our own perspectives given tradition a bad name? A mature believer would know that there is something more important. He would take the position of the Apostle Paul who reminded us about food sacrificed to idols. It is not the food or the idols but the brothers and sisters in Christ that matter more. In that light, if our celebrating of something stumbles another, we should refrain where possible. We can educate. We can demonstrate a fair and well-thought-out practice of the faith that honours tradition without compromising our theology. I believe that is possible. Good faith will have a healthy understanding and place of both theology and tradition.
Second, we are in the world but not of the world. In an increasingly complex world, it is getting very difficult to draw boundary lines. For example, the pervasiveness of the Internet has made it impossible to censor or halt the spread of pornography into our various digital devices. If we unplug the Internet in our homes, there is nothing to stop people from going to a nearby Starbucks or shopping mall to tap on a free WiFi! Education is a much better strategy than restriction. In the same way, it is impossible to live in a city without being exposed to all kinds of influences and cultural symbols. This is the “in the world” environment that we cannot escape from. Our friends, our family members, and our social and business contacts are all part of our everyday life. Given this, I believe Jesus was spot on when he prayed:
“15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)
For if God were to remove all Christians from the earth, who will be there to share the gospel? The key thing is not to be totally cut off from the world but to remain engaged as saints bearing witness and be protected by God from evil. Otherwise, we would become social enclaves just occupying a section of society and become perceived as un-neighbourly.
Third, ask what our focus is. Will our focus change because of our celebrations? For all things, we do it as unto the Lord, according to Colossians 3:23-24,
23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Col 3:23-24)
Going forward, as long as we are doing it for the glory of God in ways that honour God, we are on the right track. As long as our focus is on how to manifest the love of God in whatever we do, we are good. The Book of Hebrews also has this Person of focus, that we are to fix our eyes on Jesus who is the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2). When celebrating all kinds of festivals, ask who we are honouring or celebrating?
In summary, whatever things we do or are attempting to celebrate, we are first and foremost Christians. From that angle, we must pray to see things from the perspective of Christ as much as possible. Recognize the themes that would please Jesus. For me, when I remember the Mid-Autumn Festival, I recognize the theme of giving and generosity, as individuals freely offer gifts in appreciation for one another. I recognize the theme of goodness where people desire fairness and justice. I recognize the theme of love in which couples and families can honour one another. I recognize the theme of creativity where people design lovely mooncakes in all shapes, all colours, and all sizes. I recognize the theme of joy and happiness that there is much good in this world which can point us to the Greatest Good: Jesus.
On this basis, enjoy the festival but always remember that it is Christ we honour and it is Christ we do all things unto.